The Garden of Abdul Gasazi by Chris Van Allsburg

The Garden of Abdul Gasazi (1979) was the first picture book by American author/illustrator Chris Van Allsburg, who himself admits astonishment at the book’s immediate success. This was helped by reviews in America-wide publications. Such attention has always been unusual for children’s stories, and perhaps says something about how this story appeals to all ages. Like Australia’s Shaun Tan, the picture books of Chris Van Allsburg work as coffee table displays, and you could easily hang these illustrations on a wall as fine art.

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The Shawl by Cynthia Ozick

Jessie MacGregor - In the Reign of Terror 1891 baby cradle

The Shawl (1980) is a short story by American writer Cynthia Ozick, born 1928. In 2014, Joyce Carol Oates joined Deborah Treisman at The New Yorker to read and discuss Ozick’s story.

This horrific short story reminds me most of a narrative from another side of the same war: Grave of the Fireflies. Both are about starving, desperate war victims on a journey to nowhere. Both result in death from starvation. The Road by Cormac McCarthy has its similarities, including another horrific baby scene. (If you’ve watched the film adaptation and not read McCarthy’s novel, you have escaped it. The scene was clearly considered too harrowing for a film-going audience.)

Grave of the Fireflies utilises an empty box of sweets (replaced with stones) in the way Ozick utilises the corner of a shawl — the young starving character sucks on a non-food item as a way to quell their hunger. Both are grim motifs. The shawl in Ozicks’ narrative adds an extra layer, functioning metonymically for comfort spread thin.

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Silicon Valley and Comedy Character Ensembles

GROUPS OF FIVE TECH GUYS

The creators of Silicon Valley reveal to their audience early in the show the thinking behind their ensemble of “five guys”. This may or may not have some realworld application — I don’t know the real Silicon Valley. But even if it doesn’t ring one bit true, every time we do see this particular ensemble in real life tech teams, fans will now think of Silicon Valley, the fictional comedy show. This ensemble will seem more common than it ever was before. (Such are cognitive biases.)

Gavin Belson: It’s weird. They always travel in groups of five. These programmers, there’s always a tall, skinny white guy; short, skinny Asian guy; fat guy with a ponytail; some guy with crazy facial hair; and then an East Indian guy. It’s like they trade guys until they all have the right group.

Season One

The audience is encouraged in this scene to map the main cast of Silicon Valley onto these tech archetypes as observed by tech baddie/opponent Gavin Belson. The writers make us use our brains a little bit:

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All Summer in a Day by Ray Bradbury

Harry Wingfield Summer rainstorm (1966) for Ladybird

All Summer in a Day is a short story by American writer Ray Bradbury, first published in 1954. Find it in Ray Bradbury Stories Vol. 1. It’s interesting to see how science fiction evolves alongside our increased understanding of other planets. “All Summer In A Day” is a story of its time, written in an era when people believed Venus probably looked like a jungle.

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Foes by Lorrie Moore

“Foes” is a short story by American writer Lorrie Moore. The Guardian published it on the eve of the election which would see Obama to the presidency, and can be read in full here. It is also in Bark and in Collected Stories.

This is such an American story, so Americans will have a more indepth knowledge of its historical context than I do. My main interest lies in the story structure and writing techniques.

That said, if anyone anywhere has ever been at a social gathering, made smalltalk with a stranger than realised as the conversation wears on that this nice, smiling and friendly person has political views you find repugnant, you will likely identify with the character of Bake McKurtry, even if you’re not American.

A good way to create conflict is to shove the rich and poor together in the same small space, but when we put the “hedgefund” people and the “haiku” people together, that conflict works just as effectively (and is basically the same thing, I guess?)

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Which Is More Than I Can Say About Some People by Lorrie Moore

“Which Is More Than I Can Say About Some People” is a mother-and-daughter road trip short story by American writer Lorrie Moore. This story was published in The New Yorker in November 1993. Also find it in Birds of America (1999) and The Collected Stories.

The title of this story comes from something the mother of this story is known to say often. This is the sort of thing that can sound affirming, but also passive-aggressive. (“By some people, do you mean me??”)

“Theda’s, of course, sweet as ever,” said her mother, “which is more than I can say about some people.”

Perhaps the daughter, Abby, has heard this her whole life, and this is partly why she is on a self-improvement journey.

The word ‘journey’ to describe a psychological path is much reviled, and I wonder if that’s partly because it’s a word mainly utilised by women. In any case, Abby goes on an actual journey (to Irish) hoping for a psychological journey, or, in the case of a fictional character, a character arc. The raison d’être of all road trip stories. Does she get one, though?

Well, yeah, kinda. But not the kind she was after. This story is about self-help spiritual journeys, subverted. When we embark upon self-improvement, sometimes we’re in for a shock. It’s about the futility of (too-)easily getting there and then going, now what? Is this all it’s cracked up to be? The Blarney Stone pilgrimage is an excellent example of the futility of tourist life, because we can pretend to ourselves that we’re visiting it for a reason. Of course the Blarney Stone does nothing for us. (I’m tempted to say pilgrimages are historically more meaningful because of the religious aspect, but then I learned that even in the middle ages, rich people would pay poor people to do their pilgrimages for them, suggesting they were never all that meaningful for the masses.)

Sometimes in satirical stories, characters themselves almost feel they’re a character in thier own story. This is a version of metafiction. Abby sees ‘storybook symbolism’ in her own experience of being a tourist:

Abby felt sick from the flight, and sitting on what should be the driver’s side but without a steering wheel suddenly seemed emblematic of something.

Later, Abby takes note of the ‘deadly maternal metaphor’ in the Celtic curlicues.

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You’re Ugly, Too by Lorrie Moore

You’re Ugly, Too” is a short story by American writer Lorrie Moore, first published in a 1989 edition of The New Yorker — Moore’s first for the New Yorker. Find it also in her short story collection Like Life (1990).

New Yorker editors pointed out to Moore several “vulgarities” of the writing process she had committed in the story. “All through the editing process, they said, ‘Oooh, we’re breaking so many rules with this.’

Encyclopedia.com

Why did the crew at The New Yorker feel Lorrie Moore’s short story — the first of hers they’d seen/discussed seriously — broke the ‘rules’ of writing? What rules were they talking about.

I wasn’t there and can’t tell you for sure, but I’d like to consider this question.

  • Zoë is a woman, but she’s not “likeable”. She’s not even likeably unlikeable. (At least, she’s not written that way, panding to readers’ desire to like their main characters).
  • Zoë’s actions never fully make sense to the reader, even after re-reading. Her actions at the party, like her sense of humour, are absurd.
  • Zoë is nihilist and therefore passive. A difficult character to write.
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Owl At Home by Arnold Lobel

Owl At Home is a 1975 picture book written and illustrated by Arnold Lobel. The book comprises five very short early reader stories about a kind, anxious and lonely owl. These owl stories, along with the frog and toad stories come from the second phase of Lobel’s creative career, in which he tapped into his own emotions and acknowledged he was writing “adult stories, slightly disguised as children’s stories”.

Owl lives by himself in a regular Western-style dream house (with the upstairs, the hearth, and everything you’d expect to see in a picture book dream house). Although published in the 1970s, there’s nothing 70s about this dream house — there are 1800s/early 1900s details, such as the candle beside the bed. (There doesn’t seem to be electricity.) Picture books set in this era feel atemporal to a modern audience. I’m not sure if this house is in fact inside a tree, because we don’t get an establishing shot.

Owl at Home (1975) black and white
Owl at Home (1975) black and white
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The Jockey by Carson McCullers

American writer Carson McCullers published “The Jockey” in 1941, when she was just 24, which seems young, until you realise she’d published “Sucker” at the age of 17 and a novel at age 22.

McCullers belonged to a generation who spent their youth living through world war. Surely that affords a measure of maturity. She had also endured a number of strokes, which were to eventually paralyse one half of her body. She was married by the time she wrote this. Apparently, when her husband forged his signature to get the money she received for this story from the New Yorker, that was the last straw, and she (temporarily) left him. They reunited later, he tried to persuade her to double suicide with him, she refused, and he suicided on his own.

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I Live On Your Visits by Dorothy Parker

I Live On Your Visits by Dorothy Parker

Dorothy Parker (1893-1967) is remembered as one of America’s greatest wits. If you watch Gilmore girls, you’ll be familiar with her name, as Rory is depicted reading a 1976 edition of The Portable Dorothy Parker. The creator of Gilmore girls, Amy Sherman-Palladino, was clearly a huge fan, naming her production company Dorothy Parker Drank Here. I feel the character of Miss Patty is straight out of Dorothy Parker’s world.

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